GRETCHEN and Michael Harrison’s Tree Top Ranch is 200 acres off the Pacific Coast Highway north of San Francisco, dominated by redwood, Douglas fir and pine trees. It has a five-acre olive grove; apple, peach and pear trees; and a pond with a Finnish hot tub on its bank.
In the four-bedroom, four-bath contemporary concrete and glass house on the property, cedar ceilings soar to 25 feet and an Alaskan wolf pelt is mounted above the oversized fireplace. Sheets of copper sheathe the kitchen appliances. A glossy slab of Hawaiian koa wood in the shape of a surfboard, mounted on a copper wedge, forms the kitchen table.
In the living room, an 11-foot-high wall of glass tilts over a view of distant Timber Cove Point. On the patio, a telescope stands ready to catch glimpses of the point, where waves crash, seals bark and ospreys swoop.
The seemingly idyllic family ranch in Timber Cove, Calif., in Sonoma County, is paradise for Gretchen and Michael, a renowned pediatric surgeon who established the first fetal surgery center in the nation. But for their daughter Brittany, one of the couple’s four grown children, the place once felt like purgatory.
Around the time she turned 11, she began to loathe the regular weekend jaunts to remote Timber Cove, two and a half hours north of the family’s permanent residence in San Francisco. The winding ride was alternately mind-numbing and nauseating, she concluded, and at the end of it there was nothing to do: the closest town, Jenner, has no movies, no pool, no tennis court, and only three stores.
The location of the Harrison ranch is indeed spectacular, but its natural beauty was boring to a tweener who missed the scene at home, and her distaste for the place lasted into her mid-teens.
“I wanted to go to sleepovers,” recalled Ms. Harrison, who is now 22 and recently graduated from U.C.L.A. “I resented being away from friends and missing out on things. I sulked and whined.”
Those days are over. She describes the ranch in superlatives, noting its peacefulness and the house’s palette of copper, slate, stone and cedar. She shows it all off to friends and this year hosted a combined graduation-July 4th party there. That isolated location? It’s a welcome retreat. Nothing to do? Hikes and a dip in the hot tub are welcome diversions.
“I appreciate the escape of it — the absolute clean, fresh air, the stars at night,” she said. “I just love it.”
So what changed? Nothing except Brittany Harrison’s perspective.
IF you keep it, they will come. That’s what some owners of second homes have discovered as their complaining teens become young adults. The same kids who despised being dragged on vacation take a second look at that summer home and see a place to unwind, spread out, and — let’s be blunt — snag free room and board.
The parents get added value, too: quality family time minus the drama of the teen years, a trying passage when many kids recoil at even being seen with their parents, let alone vacationing with them. Once these children hit their 20s, experts say, they are likely to return to a summer home, lured by nostalgic childhood memories and a desire to reconnect with friends and family.
“They are a lot less egocentric and don’t feel the necessity to distance themselves from their parents,” said Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, a professor of psychology at Clark University and the author of “Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road From the Late Teens Through the Twenties.” “It’s more relaxed and comfortable on both sides.”
Laurence Steinberg, a professor of psychology at Temple University and an expert on parent-adolescent relationships, puts it more plainly: “Young adults are living on a very tight budget, and having parents who stock the cabinet with everything you love is huge.”
There is evidence that the shift begins soon after kids leave for college. As a teen turns 20, a second home that once seemed overly familiar and boring may suddenly seem a getaway for a stressed-out and cooped-up student.
By college graduation, the house may have morphed into a landing pad where a newly minted B.A. can job hunt or take far-flung friends. And by the late 20s, when the clan may include boyfriends or girlfriends, spouses and even a new generation of children, some families have successfully recast the second home as a multigenerational meeting place.
For Samantha Fahrbach, 21, the family beach cottage on Fire Island, N.Y., is a respite from her hectic life as a student at Duke University. There are no cars, no Internet service, and only five stores. “I appreciate having an excuse to be cut off out there, away from everything that keeps me connected to everyone else,” said Ms. Fahrbach, whose permanent home is in Larchmont, N.Y.
She didn’t always feel that way.
“When I was 13, and everyone was having their bar and bat mitzvahs, that was definitely the hardest time,” she recalled. “All my friends were at two or more parties every weekend. They were the places to see and be seen in your dress.”
Her mother, Ruth, remembers that year as well. “I was screaming because we had a mortgage and we hardly ever went out to the cottage,” she said. “I could have gone to Paris.”
The situation has now reversed: Samantha and her brother, Max, 24, are annoyed when the two-bedroom cottage and its small guesthouse are rented. They know how to open and close the property for the season, decorate it for Fourth of July and abide by other hallowed traditions.
“They know that come Saturday morning, I want my chocolate doughnut because that’s the ritual,” Mrs. Fahrbach said. “Sam said she hopes I realize if we ever have to sell a house, it has to be the Larchmont house, not Fire Island.”
For a 20-something in the work force, the summer place can provide a cost-effective respite. Page Robinson of New Canaan, Conn., thought Nantucket was “dead” throughout middle school, when he spent all summer at his family’s home there. Now 26 and a reporter for Mergermarket, a financial publication in New York City, he enjoys spending time on Nantucket fishing, hiking, swimming and, of course, partying.
Currently living with his parents in Connecticut to save money, Mr. Robinson will ferry to his family’s gray shingled saltbox at least three times this summer. And he’ll have company. “I always have friends who want to go,” he said.
Referring to all four of her grown children, Sharon Robinson, Page’s mother, said, “We found that when they come back, they never come alone.”
She and her husband, Frank, are rapidly being outnumbered. She recently mounted a wooden sign in her kitchen that reads, “Guests of Guests May Not Bring Guests.” “It wasn’t a joke!” she said.
MARCOS SALAZAR, 29, the author of “The Turbulent Twenties Survival Guide” and creator of www.turbulenttwenties.com, offers a rationale for a summer home’s magnetic pull on the post-college crowd.
“After you graduate, you lose a sense of community,” he said. “Your college ‘family’ gets spread out all over the country. Being able to go to a vacation home with them once in a while helps alleviate that loss.”
The Robinsons have just added an extra living room in Nantucket — a parents-only enclave. Mrs. Robinson said: “I told the architect, ‘No, you don’t get it — this isn’t for togetherness, this is for separateness.’ This is so Frank and I don’t have to play ‘Who’s on First.’ ”
Brian and Joan Drum built not just an addition, but an entirely new house at Lake Naomi, a resort near Pocono Pines, Pa. The Drums, of Millburn, N.J., bought their first home at the lake in 1980, and their two children spent all summer, every summer there with Mrs. Drum. That worked well until puberty.
“Teenage years get a little dicey when you leave your core group of friends,” recalled the Drums’ daughter, Carly Drum-O’Neill, 30. “I pushed to go home earlier in the summer, or take the bus home, or drive home — anything to get home. I felt as if they were torturing me, but it was a rare occurrence when they let me go home.”
Instead, she was expected to attend the kids’ camp on the lake until she aged out, and then become a counselor there. In the process, she became such a superb tennis player that she was recruited by Penn State. Fortuitously, the drive from school to home took her right through the Poconos.
“It was the midpoint of my drive, so we all met there,” she said. “That’s when I started seeing being in the middle of the woods as a relaxing thing.”
Constructed on the same footprint as their previous home but twice its size, the Drums’ new 3,900-square-foot Arts and Crafts-style house has separate suites for their children and spouses. There is also a bunk room for grandchildren and those on the way (Ms. Drum-O’Neill is expecting in August).
“I actually built this house to deal with three families,” said Mr. Drum, the president of Drum Associates, a New York-based executive search firm where his daughter also works.
The house was completed in May and officially opened on Memorial Day — not a moment too soon for Ms. Drum-O’Neill. Since she and her husband, Michael O’Neill, occupy a one-bedroom apartment in Hoboken, N.J., the spacious house on the lake is more seductive than ever.
“You don’t have to ask me twice to go,” she remarked. “I’m ready every weekend.”